• Burn Witch Burn (Blu-ray)



    Released by: Kino Lorber
    Released on: August 18th, 2015.
    Director: Sydney Hayers
    Cast: Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston
    Year: 1962
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    The Movie:

    Part of a small group of truly "sexy" classic horror films of the British 50's and 60's era, BURN WITCH BURN (known as NIGHT OF THE EAGLE in its native UK) has always been a bit of a dark horse. Overlooked at its premiere (indeed star Peter Wyngarde tells a highly amusing anecdote about this fact in this disc's bonus interview) and hard to find on video, the film's last release was a pricey burn on demand DVDr. Things were a bit better in England, but the film never enjoyed the level of notoriety or respect as its closest cousin - the acknowledged classic NIGHT OF THE DEMON. Which, frankly, is quite odd. BURN WITCH BURN is not only a marvelous film, it boasts an incredible artistic pedigree. Written with the involvement of two of television's top Twilight Zone talents - Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, it also benefitted from two terrific lead performances, a clever script, surefooted direction and crisp black and white cinematography. After the film's bizarre William Castlesque opening narrated prolog (filled with ominous warnings about witchcraft and the "film you are about to see"), BURN WITCH BURN finds its taut and far less sensationalist rhythm quickly. Deftly intertwining two narrative strands - backstabbing academic thriller and occult potboiler, it astutely builds to a satisfying conclusion hampered only slightly by the limitations of the practical visual effects of the day.

    Professor Norman Taylor seems to have it all: a thriving upwardly mobile academic teaching career, a gorgeous wife and a lovely English seaside cottage getaway. Norman is a hard-boiled skeptic. With a keen intelligence and a marked disdain for ignorance and especially superstition he is the poster child for the rigors of the scientific method. His marriage is strong but his wife Tansy (the stunning Janet Blair), has a secret. As much as she adores her husband, she cannot tell him the truth she believes to the marrow of her bones - that he is surrounded by evil forces that wish him harm. Tansy is deeply involved in the occult and an enthusiastic practitioner of talismanic magic. It dates to the couples time in Jamaica together where Norman - stricken with a deadly infection - was attended to by a native witch doctor without his knowledge. Tansy believes the man saved her husband's life and she became a secret occultist from then on. Norman has no idea that his home is strewn with small hidden objects - bones and graveyard dirt in tins for example - designed to protect him. And while Norman sees himself as popular with his colleagues at the school, Tansy has ideas far closer to the truth. They hate and resent both him and his wife. And one of them is a witch practicing her own spells against Norman.

    One of the film's pivotal scenes involves Norman and Tansy throwing a dinner party for his colleagues at their home. While the men cluelessly play cards and drink and smoke, the tension among the faculty wives is palpable. One of the wives, Flora (in a bravura performance by Margaret Johnston) simply oozes passive-aggressive evil with her strange mannerisms and odd speech cadences. At this point we aren't quite sure what is happening, but it all comes to a head when, after the party, Norman discovers some of Tansy's various talismans and she is forced to reveal the truth. Horrified, the professor forces her to destroy all of them and renounce witchcraft. Tansy does so - but with enormous fear. She tells Norman that without magic to protect him, she cannot guarantee his safety. But Norman - like his counterpart in NIGHT OF THE DEMON - will not be swayed. Logic, of the coldest and most clinical kind, is his God. There is no room for magic and superstition.

    The heart of BURN WITCH BURN is about the battle between skepticism and faith, the occult and the traditional. When things start to go disastrously wrong (starting with a sexual misconduct scandal) and leading to Norman becoming the target of a supernatural assassin, the film achieves greatness. It's gothic yet realistic, cool and intellectual but passionate. The two leads have searing chemistry as well. Blair, in her early 40's when this was made, was a stunning woman: sexy, earthy and impeccably chic. Wyngarde projects a fantastic combination of intellectual arrogance, fierce will, and finally - total fear. But their relationship is completely believable. Blair will do ANYTHING for her husband and her husband adores her. That the climax is triggered by Norman's desperate attempts to rescue his wife make the film work on an emotional level. This is not an explicit film yet it oozes sexual tension. These two appear genuinely hot for each other.

    The actual resolution of the film has some startling imagery as well. The stone eagle that plays a pivotal role is one, as is his very impressive flesh and blood avian counterpart. Despite some dodgy wire work, the images retain their power. Based on esteemed author Fritz Lieber's novel "Conjure Wife", Matheson and Beaumont's script is filled with great dialog and clever scenes. The academic subplot is particularly effective with Norman's lectures being a highlight as well as the cadre of backstabbing colleagues out to get him. Director Sydney Hayers has an eye for small town England and its coastal vistas. His work on a pivotal scene set by the sea and the climax with Norman running for his life on an abandoned campus are notable. The film's cinematography is the best kind of black and white work. Moody and evocative, with attention to fine detail. Add in William Alwyn's excellent score and you have a great film on every level.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Kino's 1.85.1 framed 1080p AVC encoded transfer is one of their upper tier presentations. The crucial areas are all handled well. Contrast and fine detail are a substantial upgrade over the DVD and black levels are appropriately inky. Print damage is minimal and grain unmolested. Natural, filmic and organic are the order of the day here. As far as black and white films of this era go, this is one of the stronger HD jobs. Audio is covered by a solid DTS-HD Mono track that has decent heft and no obvious shrillness. The score sounds good, all dialog is audible, and the track comes through admirably in the film's final act which some complex sound design. There are, however, no subtitles.

    There are only two real extras but they are good ones. The first is the commentary track with Richard Matheson that featured on the old laserdisc. Matheson (sadly no longer with us) is a slow and patient speaker with a lovely voice prone to pauses but once you get used to his style the track is filled with great info and genuine enthusiasm. He has some critical comments as well of course but his recollections of the tragic Charles Beaumont are particularly interesting. Next up is a great 25 minute on camera chat with star Wyngarde. Funny and engaging he covers his whole career and while dismissive of BURN WITCH BURN's initial script, he felt that in the end it turned out a fine film. His bits about FLASH GORDON and THE INNOCENTS are particularly fun. Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is present.

    Final Thoughts:

    Despite its somewhat silly American title and carnival huckster prolog, BURN WITCH BURN is a great film that deserves a wider American audience. Sexy, thoughtful and filled with tension, it's one of Great Britain's finer film accomplishments of the 60's. A genuinely exciting and clever film, it remains a firm personal favorite of mine. Highly recommended.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!